by Roy Harris

Must CFOs Be Both Strategists and Skeptics? to Be Change Agents, Yes

Dec 06, 20115 mins
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

In wide-ranging discussion, that's the conclusion of finance panelists from OfficeMax, Duke Energy and Time Warner.

The panel’s mission was challenging: Define ways that finance chiefs have become corporate agents of change — using technology’s new tools while evading its new threats.”

To truly be a change agent, said Lynn Good, CFO and group executive of Duke Energy, “you build a bridge of trust” from finance to the rest of the company. That calls for spending more time with the operating groups, and tapping them for cost-saving, revenue-raising, and other suggestions, while letting them know that their proposals will be considered.

“There’s a wealth of great ideas,” she said. “My role is seeing what we can afford.”

At last month’s ninth annual MIT Sloan CFO Summit, held in Newton, Mass., the “bridge of trust” approach resonated with fellow panelists John Martin, executive vice president and CFO of Time Warner, and Bruce Besanko, CFO of OfficeMax. And so did her suggestion that finance chiefs must be the ones to draw the lines. And all offered examples of how to fulfill both roles.

Chief Skeptics Officer

Indeed, said Besanko, in addition to building up trust with operating groups — and with the CEO, as well — he thinks that “being chief skeptics officer is one of my roles” at OfficeMax. When ideas are presented for consideration, the CFO must “make sure there are good business plans behind them,” and that they reflect both customer needs and earnings-producing rigor.

“There’s a fine line between being a skeptic and being a cynic,” he noted. But when he reads of the failures of companies to follow through on great business plans, he said, “I look at the cases and wonder where the CFO was.”

Because finance chiefs have command of the company’s data, Besanko added, “the CFO is in a unique spot to provide that level of transparency to the CEO,” filling something of an “honest broker role.” And that’s why the finance chief often is well placed to move a company out of a position of inertia. “Sometimes it takes rocking the boat a little bit,” he said, “so that’s what I like to do.”

To get the most positive impact out of any CEO-CFO disagreements, added Duke’s Good, “the earlier you can weigh in [with your concerns] the better off you are.” She added, “If he gets way ahead of you, and has taken it to the board level, it’s going to be very difficult.”

Savings at Time Warner

Time Warner, of course, in the last decade has faced more than its share of problems requiring CEO-CFO candor, John Martin noted. In the wake of the troubled merger with AOL, it was forced to take a $100 billion goodwill writedown several years ago. These days, Martin said, he is involved with cost-saving efforts that also involve tapping employees for ideas and support in much the way Lynn Good discussed.

“I spend 80% of my time in forums,” including employee forums, Martin said. For one thing, employees are increasingly acting as sources of entertainment ideas at the entertainment properties of Time Warner, he noted, although he didn’t give any details about those contributions.

At its CNN unit, the division was asked recently to figure out a way to finance half of a plan to purchase new equipment — another approach that the CFO is frequently involved in these days. “More often than not,” Martin said of divisional attempts at locating a financing source, “they find it.” Martin’s role: producing the other half of the financing.

Martin also measured employee reactions recently to a Time Warner plan to slash what it pays to maintain office space in New York City — where it has 10 different building locations, and is looking to consolidate. In the new environment, where space is designed more with cost in mind, “you may not be able to pick your office, or pick your carpeting,” he said, but the company’s bottom line should benefit overall.

The MIT Sloan CFO Summit panel was hosted by Carol Massar, an anchor for Bloomberg Television, who got a laugh at that point when she noted that she and other Bloomberg employees don’t have separate offices at all.

‘Killing Cute Puppies’

Duke Energy’s strategic plans are “never small, never short-term,” said Lynn Good, as she discussed the 10-year or greater lead time that’s required, for example, to build nuclear or other energy plants when federal requirements are so tough.

But in terms of smaller enterprises at her company, as well as at other companies, the CFO often is in the critical position of having to review proposals to determine which are likely to be unprofitable. Many of those ideas, she said, have backing from powerful people, and may seem attractive on the surface — or, as Good described them, “cute puppies.” She quoted a Harvard professors as saying of this function of the CFO: “You’ve got to be better at killing your cute puppies.”

Joked Time Warner’s John Martin in response: “I don’t want to go into any Duke meetings.”

The way Time Warner entertainment projects sometimes benefit from a struggling economy also introduced another element of levity to the panel.

When both OfficeMax’s Besanko and Duke’s Good observed that they were “very cautious” about the state of the current global economy, Martin declared even that cautious view to be optimistic. “Europe is like a bad movie that you don’t know how it’s going to end,” he said.

He then reminded the audience that Time Warner’s movie-making arm, along with those of competitors, have been experiencing strong box office results recently.

“People go to movies,” he said, “to escape their crappy life.”